Getting an answer in the “wrong” language is something which especially minority language parents dread, and which gives rise to question such as:
– Is it the start of a slippery slope which may end in the majority language taking over as the language of communication in our family?
– Have I not done enough or the right things to encourage the use of my language?
– How can I reverse this trend and get us back on track again?
There are four major reasons that parents and children give when asked what was behind the change in the language use, and these can be summarised as want, need, habit and time.
1. Don’t want to
“She didn’t want to speak it anymore” or “He preferred the majority language after going to school” – these are the most common reason parents state for when a child has stopped using a minority language. Wanting to speak a language is the most important motivator and guarantor for keeping a language active. The important thing is to understand why the ‘want’ seems to all of a sudden vanish. The language a person speaks is a big part of their personality, no matter the age, so to drop it is a big change, and there is always an underlying reason for it. Each child is different, so it is vital that you try to find the cause for what has made your child make this choice.
Some questions to ask:
– Are there any negative connotations with the language?
– Does your child feel compelled to speak the language?
– Has your child been made uncomfortable for either speaking or not speaking the language?
– Has anyone made fun of your child when he or she has spoken it?
– Has there been bullying at school because of the language?
– Has anyone criticised or overly corrected how your child speaks the language?
– Is your child shy and afraid of making mistakes?
– Does your child not see the value in using your language?
– Or, is it just a phase in their life when the answer to everything you suggest is No! ?
By exploring these options and discussing with your child, you will get a better picture of the situation, which will put you in a better place to address it.
2. Don’t need to
“Why use it, everybody understands me when I speak the majority language anyway?” – children are very pragmatic and usually take the path of least resistance. If they do not experience any real need to use a language, and they have an option they feel is easier – to speak the majority language – it is not surprising if that is what they decide to do. Next to wanting to speak a language, needing to use it is a key factor for making sure a child not only understands, but also speaks the language.
Again, for you to create the right type of motivation, to make you child want to maintain the minority language, it is a question of finding out what drives your offspring and what you can do to change the situation. I know that several parents have (successfully) used the tactic of refusing to understand their child if spoken to in the “wrong” one. I am not saying this is a strategy that should not be used at all, but I confess that I am not a big fan of it. The risk of creating negative associations with the language is great and the approach may backfire. Also, I for one, would have felt devastated if my mother or father had ever refused to communicate with me because of my language choice.
My preferred option is to find ways to draw your child towards your language by finding the right way to motivate her or him. Again, every child is different, and a parent is the best expert on what makes their kids tick, so work with what spurs your child on. Different types of rewards, trips to where the language is spoken, play groups and fun activities in the language are great boosters for its use.
3. Don’t have the habit
“We just got out of the habit of speaking it” is another comment I have heard from families where the minority language has lost its importance. To create any habit you need to consistently take certain actions. To make speaking a language a habit, you as a parent need to continue using the language with your child even if your child does not speak it to you. Ideally, also find other people with whom your child can practise it. If you are the only speaker where you live, set up regular on-line calls with relatives and friends to expand the circle of people that your child communicates with in the language.
Habits change when life circumstances change – as long as a child stays mostly in a home environment, it is usually fairly easy to maintain a minority language as the common language. However, attending nursery or going to school in the majority language brings with a huge shift in the language habits for a child, so these are crucial phases in the language development stages of your bilingual child.
Another thing to keep in mind is to pay close attention to your own language use – do you yourself quickly switch to the majority language, even if it is not necessary? Are you being a good, positive role model as a speaker of the language?
4. Don’t have the time
Time is of the essence to us all, but there is really no difference in time when saying something in one language or another. So, if your child says that it is quicker to say it in the majority language, what he or she really means is:
– I don’t know the right words.
– I don’t know how to form a correct sentence for what I want to say.
– I am afraid of making a mistake.
In other words, what needs addressing is not the time aspect but the knowledge of the language and the confidence to use it. Ways of addressing these, apart from the obvious of generally using the language more with your child, are for example to encourage reading books and magazines, preparing for new experiences by learning the relevant vocabulary and constantly giving positive feedback whenever your child speaks the language.
Reading is a great habit to have from the very start – if you nurture a love for books in your child, he or she will benefit from it in so many ways later in life. When something new is going to happen in the family’s life, speak about with your child in your language – make sure the vocabulary becomes familiar before the change. Speak about nursery, routines, instructions, school, classroom, teachers, subjects and so on – this way your child will not need to start looking for words when telling you about what happened at school.
What do you think? Have you experienced this and what worked/didn’t work for you?